HC Deb 17 June 1987 vol 118 cc2-14 2.48 pm
Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

May I first extend to you personally, Sir Bernard, hearty congratulations and a warm welcome in your new capacity as Father of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] As the House has already testified, that will give great pleasure to your many friends on both sides.

As you and the House will know, Sir Bernard, our first duty as a new Parliament is to elect a Speaker. Accordingly, I beg to move, That the Right Honourable Bruce Bernard Weatherill do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. Again, If I may speak personally, it gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to do that.

My right hon. Friend or the right hon. Gentleman, whichever is the correct form of address, and I came in to the House together in 1964. We share links with the county of Surrey and we have been pretty good friends over the past 23 years. On this occasion I speak in knowledge of one thing which encourages me greatly. In 1983, the mover and seconder of the motion, Sir Humphrey Atkins and Jack Dormand, both old friends of this House who are no longer with us, but who may yet be Members of this Parliament, had a more difficult task to perform because it was the first time of asking. Since 1983 most of us have had the inestimable advantage of first-hand experience of the right hon. Gentleman as our Speaker. We know his strengths and his foibles, how patient he can be and how impatient we can make him. We know a great deal about him. He also knows a fair bit about us and that is no doubt of great advantage to him.

However, I hope that will not deter the right hon. Gentleman from allowing this motion to proceed. Although by a tradition set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I by a member of my family the Speaker-Elect resists the gentle endeavours of his friends to persuade him to take the Chair, I am sure that the Speakership in the reign of our present monarch is a less dangerous task than in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Moreover, I expect that the House is more orderly.

The acceptance speech which the right hon. Gentleman made to the House in 1983 was naturally a model of its kind and in it he made several comments on the task of the Chair as he saw it and some promises to the House. One of his first comments on that occasion was that he had listened to many long and overlong speeches and he hoped that brevity will be the order of the day. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] In that context he thought it right to mention Privy Councillors. I hope that you, Sir Bernard, will not take this amiss if I say that that came as music to the rest of us. In the light of his experience of the Chair it may be that the right hon. Gentleman may have something to say about overlong questions. It will be entirely right for him to remind us, as he did then, that we are all equal here."—[Official Report, 15 June 1983; Vol. 44, c. 11] Each of us comes with the same authority derived from our constituency and we are all on an equal footing as Members of this honourable House.

The most difficult task which may befall the right hon. Gentleman, if he is elected Speaker as I hope, will be that of balancing debates. It was something to which Opposition Members drew attention on the last occasion when we debated this. I think that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) said something about it. That task will not necessarily have been made much easier by the outcome of the recent election.

In 1983, the right hon. Gentleman told the House that he hoped to do something which all of us can testify that he has done and which has been of great value to us all. That was to make Speaker's House somewhere with "a family atmosphere" and to allow right hon. and hon. Members and their wives— [HON. MEMBERS: "And their husbands."]—and husbands access to it. That has been of great value to us all.

Over and above everything else, in 1983 the right hon. Gentleman promised that he would be faithful to this House and its Members in seeking absolute impartiality and fairness, in protecting minority rights as carefully as the rights of majorities and in upholding the high, historic traditions of the Speakership of this honourable House. The House knows that the right hon. Gentleman has discharged that promise right honourably. I can think of no one better to resume the Chair in this Parliament, and I commend the motion to the House.

2.54 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

In all my long years in the House I have never knowingly agreed to a proposition that was especially favoured by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow). However, on this occasion, I am happy to make two exceptions to that rule. First, I gladly join him in congratulating you, Sir Bernard, on being the new Father of the House. I think that you have won by only a short head, if I may say so, but I certainly wish you the very best success in the office, and thank you for the courtesies and kindness that you show the House.

On the second proposition, too, I am prepared to agree with the hon. Member for Woking, although I acknowledge that, like some others, I had some suspicions of the right hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Weatherill) before he was elected Speaker in 1983. After all, he had served for some years in the Whips Office and it is not always good that comes out of that. My suspicions were enhanced when I discovered that the motion was to be proposed by a Conservative ex-Chief Whip and seconded by a pairing Whip on this side. It was obviously a put-up job; the usual channels up to their usual tricks. However, it was not like that at all. In fact, the seconder of the motion on this side of the House — and I say nothing against the proposer — was Jack Dormand, whom all of us remember and whose commendation was sufficient for all of us on the Labour Benches.

I agree, too, that throughout the period for which he has sustained the office of Speaker, the right hon. Member for Croydon, North-East has discharged his duties in such a way as to bring great honour to this House. That does not mean that we have agreed with all his decisions. Indeed, no doubt some of use will contest some of his future decisions in our usual polite manner.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Foot

I know that I will carry my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) with me eventually; sometimes we are not so quick off the mark.

I say to the right hon. Member for Croydon, North-East sincerely that the office of Speaker is the very highest honour that the House of Commons can confer on one of its Members. That honour is greater in some senses than any other, because the Speaker more than anyone else embodies the very best traditions of the House and, in modern times, our democratic traditions. The most famous speech ever made by a Speaker of the House of Commons was one in which he defied the King. Others, too, have to be defied. Principalities, powers and Prime Ministers all have to be resisted at times, and the right hon. Gentleman has shown that he knows that to be a part of his functions. The right hon. Gentleman has many of the other qualities required by Speakers of this House, such as humour, wit and knowledge of all the ways of this place. Above all, the office of Speaker is a test of character. On that test, the right hon. Gentleman has come through with flying colours, and I am sure that he will do so again.

2.58 pm
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Sir Bernard, the House will be relieved to know that I am not after the Speaker's job, but I should like to make a brief point to which I referred when the right hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Weatherill) was first elected by the House to be Speaker. It is a tradition in the House that the occupant of the Chair, when selecting hon. Members to participate in a debate, chooses one from the Government, one from the Opposition, one from the Government, one from the Opposition, and so on. Within the time allocated to the Opposition, obviously the minority parties have to have their say as well.

I should like to point out that, when Scottish business is considered in the House, the Labour party is the majority party. We won the general election in Scotland, winning 50 of the 72 seats — more than all the parties put together. The Labour party is the majority party in Scotland and the Tory party has been reduced to a discredited rump of 10 seats. This will make matters increasingly difficult for not only the Government but the occupant of the Chair when Scottish legislation is considered. The 50-strong Scottish Labour party group is determined to use every means at its disposal to thwart that legislation, because the Government received no mandate from the people of Scotland for it.

I therefore appeal in advance to the future occupant of the Chair when Scottish legislation is considered to bear in mind the completely different political composition of the House. The Labour party is the majority party in Scotland. If the occupant of the Chair does not bear that in mind, my fear is that, until Scotland has its own devolved Parliament, the people of Scotland will have decreasing respect for this over-centralised and unresponsive Parliament.

3.3 pm

Mr. Bernard Weatherill (Croydon, North-East)

(standing in his place): Sir Bernard, you have occasionally charged me with failing to call you early in a debate, and I am most grateful to you today for not having turned the tables on me. I join the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) and the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) in warmly congratulating you on becoming Father of the House.

When I was first elected to the House in 1964, you had already been here for 14 years, Sir Bernard, and I well remember your help and kindness to me as a new Member. But you also have another reputation—that of having made the longest speech in this Chamber from the Back Benches since 1828. That was before the record was broken by the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) and almost certainly by Mr. John Golding, too. I hope that new Members — we all welcome the new Members here today—will follow your fine example in terms of generosity and courtesy but will refrain from entertaining us at great length in debate. We welcome you, Sir Bernard, as Father of the House. We know that you will fulfil that role with dignity and with great dedication.

In accordance with ancient custom, I now submit myself to the will of the House. In doing so, I wish to express my deep gratitude to the hon. Member for Woking and the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent for the kind and generous way in which they have proposed and seconded my re-election as Speaker of this ancient and honourable House. I am only sorry that the boy who stated so confidently on television that I was a mere tape recorder has not been present as a punishment.

No one is more conscious than I am of the high honour conferred on a Member who is chosen by the House to be its Speaker. When I was chosen four years ago, almost to the day, I promised to dedicate myself to the service of the House and to Members, irrespective of party allegiances, and to be faithful in seeking to be wholly impartial and fair. I do so again today, but I am daily aware of the frustration of Members and the difficulty of balancing the urgent claims of Back Benchers with those of Privy Councillors and of Front Benchers. Hon. Members have been sent here to speak and it is difficult for our constituents to understand that, if the Chair exercises fairness, their Member is unlikely to be called in a major debate many more than four times in a year. Last Session my Deputies and I, thanks to the operation of the 10-minute limit on speeches and the self-restraint of hon. Members, managed to make that an average of six. It is for that reason that I constantly appeal—I appeal again today — for short speeches. In response to the hon. Member for Woking, I appeal too for short supplementary questions. They are usually the more effective.

In the second year of my Speakership I received a present from my grandchildren—the mumps. As I was on my death bed —[Laughter.]—I listened to the House on radio. I am bound to say that I was appalled. On my return to duty, I set about seeing what could be done about it. Unhappily, the inevitably selected extracts from our proceedings by sound and not by sight give a distorted impression. The public are used to listening to a programme on something that has been specifically produced for broadcasting. Our debates, and especially Question time, are not like that. In Parliament, Ministers have to submit their policies to the sceptical audience of fellow politicians.

In addressing his own supporters Mr. Gladstone once said: It is not your job to run the country but it is your duty to hold to account those who do. That is the classic role of Parliament and it cannot be scripted. The actions of enthusiam, disbelief, boredom or amusement are the very stuff of parliamentary debate. Let us always remember, however, that at the heart of all the tensions that exist and the conflict of different policies we meet in Parliament to resolve our differences by free and fair debate, respectng our right to hold an opinion and the right of others to hold different opinions and to express them with eqqual freedom. This concept and the good name of Parliament are in the hands of every hon. Member. The discipline of Parliament is a self-discipline, and he who fails to accept it damages himself, his cause and the reputation of Parliament.

Before I resume my seat, I give a warm welcome to all new Members. I shall try to marry their faces with their names or vice versa as quickly as I can, but I hope that I may be given a little tolerance initially. I believe that Mr. Speaker should try to establish personal contact with hon. Members and I want all hon. Members to know, and especially new Members, that I am readily available to them all.

I wish to pay a tribute to the Deputy Speakers who shared the responsibility of the Chair with me during the previous Parliament. I value their knowledge and advice and I am indebted to them for their dedication and ability to sit far into the night and to stay awake.

Finally, I wish to say how grateful I am to my wife for the way in which she has supported me in my duties. Parliamentary spouses are the great unsung heroes and heroines of our trade. We do not acknowledge their contributions sufficiently, and we should, and I do.

I now submit my self with great humility, Sir Bernard, to the will of the House. If the great honour of Speakership is again conferred on me, I pledge myself anew to the service of Parliament and all its Members irrespective of party. I shall strive to maintain at all times impartiality and fairness.

Resolved, That the Right Hon. Bruce Bernard Weatherill do take the Chair of this House as Speaker.

Whereupon, the RIGHT HON. SIR BERNARD BRAINE left the Chair, and the RIGHT HON. BERNARD WEATHERILL was taken out of his place and conducted to the Chair by Mr. CRANLEY ONSLOW and Mr. MICHAEL FOOT.

Mr. Speaker-Elect

(standing on the upper step): I wish to express to the House my gratitude for the great honour that it has conferred upon me in re-electing me to this Chair. It is the greatest honour that can be conferred upon any Member of the House, and I am most deeply grateful.

Mr. Speaker-Elect

sat down in the Chair.

Then the Mace (which before lay under the Table) was placed upon the Table.

3.10 pm
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, it is a great pleasure and an honour for me, on this day of unanimity, to be the first to offer you congratulations on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends on your election as Speaker. This House is the democratic authority of the country and the Speaker is its foremost upholder. Just as the general election secures the democratic right of the people to choose their representatives, so, Mr. Speaker-Elect, we choose you to ensure that freedom and order should reign in our House.

This time, Sir, you come to the Chair with the great experience of your previous tenure of office and we know from the qualities you have already shown that you will preside over our discussions with firmness, with fairness and with kindness.

It is of course difficult to find a fresh way of expressing our good wishes and congratulating you when following such eloquent and powerful contributions as those of the proposer and seconder which have already been made today. But St. Paul himself identified—albeit in a rather different context — the qualities that matter. The leader, he said, should be blameless, … vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, … not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity". Mr. Speaker-Elect, it is not possible to set out a blueprint or a job description for the onerous task that one of my predecessors so accurately described as the "linchpin of the chariot".

Each of our great Speakers of the past has brought his own special skills and spirit to the task, which cannot simply be copied by his successors. Perhaps one of the most telling tributes was paid when it was said of one of your predecessors many years ago: He had always something to say that was agreeable to everybody, and used to take as much pleasure in telling a story to a man's advantage as others generally do the contrary. Mr. Speaker-Elect, we already know that when, in the heat of debate, the tempers of others may shorten, yours will not, that when, in the excitement of a forcefully contested issue, others may seek to draw you into taking sides, you will remain resolutely impartial. We know that, when the noise of lively debate threatens to drown speakers on both sides, your call for order will carry authority, and your sense of humour will defuse wrath. We know these qualities are yours, and we know that the House has need of them; for like all its predecessors, this Parliament will generate heat as well as light and ours would be a limp and lifeless democracy if it did not.

It is sometimes said that the House has become more difficult and noisy than in the past. It is also averred that by comparison with the behaviour of some of our predecessors in past centuries, we are a model of conduct and calm. I suspect the truth is that, since the House elected Sir Thomas Hungerford its first Speaker 600 years ago, and with each of the many Speakers who have followed, it has aspired to better courtesies than it has achieved. But there is today one important difference, to which you have already referred, Mr. Speaker-Elect. In the past, the number of people who heard directly the work of the House was necessarily limited. But now many of our liveliest moments go straight into millions of homes. We therefore have a heightened responsibility to assist you, Sir, in seeing that we live up to the best traditions of debate and democracy.

Mr. Speaker-Elect, the special place that this House occupies in the life of our nation, and in the wider world, means that your work as our representative at home and abroad is a very important part of your duties. I know that the whole House will join me in thanking you for the magnificent work that you have done representing this House overseas, and also for hosting the Commonwealth parliamentary conference here in London. We also thank you for the endless kindness and hospitality that you and Mrs. Speaker have shown not only to right hon. and hon. Members but to many others as well.

We admire the tireless work that you have undertaken on your appeal, where the result of your efforts can now be seen as the work takes place to restore St. Margaret's to its former beauty.

At the beginning of this new Parliament we welcome you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, to your Chair. We pay tribute to you for the work that you have done already on our behalf, and we wish you well in the task ahead.

3.16 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (IsIwyn)

Like the Prime Minister, I am delighted to join in the spirit of unanimity and equanimity that marks this occasion. Indeed, so strong are both these spirits that if it were practised elsewhere, doubtless it would now be known as democratic fusion.

It is a great pleasure to be able to congratulate you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, upon your re-election to the Chair. It is a position for which, as most of us expected, and as time has certainly shown, you are uniquely well suited, for you mix a sense of order with a sense of humour, and your natural dignity is made all the more convincing by your complete lack of pomposity. You have assembled those qualities together with the other essential attributes of a good Speaker — judicious amnesia, spasmodic hearing difficulty and a mastery of tactical myopia, all of which come in very handy.

Therefore, Mr.Speaker-Elect, your success is assured — indeed, was assured — and is very easily explained. Such has been the success of your past four years of office that it justifies a slight adjustment of your name. Frankly, I think that "Weatherill" is now somewhat inappropriate. "Weather-well" would suit the bill much better than that, or, given some of the tussles over which you have to preside, "Weather-all". However, I am sure that you would not want to change your name, Mr. Speaker-Elect. I simply record that as the way in which I am sure you are regarded on both sides of the House.

Your task, Mr.Speaker-Elect, requires the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon and, from time to time, the voice of a Bengal lancer. Those attributes, too, you possess in great measure. We are all conscious that if we should fail to achieve the decorum that is proper for Parliament, you could always exercise your ability to address us in Urdu, and by that means still us to complete silence. Of that I am absolutely certain — not, of course, that you are over-pious about decorum. That too is eternally to your credit. While we know that necessarily you have a strict view about the boundaries of parliamentary propriety and the levels of parliamentary decibels, and while you enforce that view vigorously and scrupulously, we are also aware that you do not consider that silence in this place is necessarily golden, realistic or democratic. Your view typifies — you have communicated this view outside the House also — your combination of robustness and reasonableness. I believe that the House is all the better for that.

Your attitude, Mr. Speaker-Elect, certainly will not bring you the misfortune suffered by Speakers in past centuries whose careers were so often brought to an untimely, not to say messy, conclusion by those whose displeasure they incurred. That fate is now reserved for dissident Cabinet Ministers and that is an altogether more genteel practice.

Your qualities are many, Sir. They earn you popularity, but thankfully they have never tempted you into indulgence. Even a Speaker-Elect as sensitive to moods and as accommodating by nature as you, cannot allow all hon. Members to speak on the day that they want, at the time that they want or even in the debate that they want. Many of us believe that such an attitude from the Chair would be a model for wider social organisation as well as an essential parliamentary requirement.

That refusal to allow all hon. Members to do what they want can be a cause of frustration. However, I am happy to say that you handle that problem with great tact and I congratulate you on that. You also share another quality with your predecessors. I recall one of your predecessors who, as Deputy Speaker, did not call me in a debate. As a Back Bencher, I had sat right through the debate until 9 o'clock in a state of constant eagerness. When the time came for the Front Bench spokesman to reply, I approached Mr. Deputy Speaker to register my disappointment at the fact that I had not caught his eye. Mr. Deputy Speaker, who later became a distinguished Speaker, but who must remain nameless, said, "There's sorry I am that you didn't catch my eye, Neil. But if it is any comfort I can tell you that you were a glint from time to time." New Members may take some comfort from that, as they can become very frustrated. As you and previous Speakers have always reminded the House, if hon. Members cannot make a contribution to a major debate, there are plenty of other opportunities to raise the question.

On such an occasion, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), who was then the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale, might recall, we were present in the House to debate a very important statutory instrument at about 2 o'clock in the morning. Such was the importance and tension generated by the debate that most hon. Members had decided to relieve themselves of that tension by staying away. Consequently only the Minister, the Government Whip, my right hon. Friend formerly the Member for Ebbw Vale, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Coleman) the Labour party Whip, and myself were in the House. The then Deputy Speaker, Sir Robert Grant-Ferris of blessed memory, was in the Chair and at that time in the morning he called my right hon. Friend the former hon. Member for Ebbw Vale and said: "Mr. Dingle Foot." Whereupon my right hon. Friend rose and without so much as a pause said, "Madam Deputy Speaker." That was a way of relieving the tension.

Mr. Speaker-Elect, the House is grateful to you for your service and assistance in the past and we wish you well for your future in office. We trust that, although that period will not be free from contention between parties, it will continue to be free from animosity between hon. Members and the Chair. We trust, too, that your future in office—although it cannot be free of problems— will never again find you in the unenviable position of having to deny to the House of Commons material which, completely unknown to you, had become widely and publicly available elsewhere. We trust that as you perform your weighty task, you will be assisted by a House of Commons that is well-mannered and well-informed and that will, at long last, have the good sense and confidence to allow its proceedings to be televised — something in which I know that you, in common with me, believe enthusiastically.

Finally, I ask you not only to accept the good wishes and congratulations of the House but to convey our warm felicitations to your wife. There have been Mrs. Speakers before, but none can have brought more grace or generosity to that position, with all of its obligations—so much so that the term "Mrs. Speaker" is almost a constitutionally recognised title. That is a justified accolade in itself and it speaks volumes for your dear wife, but it also ensures the avoidance of embarrassment such as that suffered by a distinguished American who visited the Vatican recently and is alleged to have greeted His Holiness by inquiring, "How are you, and, tell me, how is Mrs. Pope?" That could not happen here, not least because of your excellent management of affairs. Long may it continue.

3.26 pm
Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, my Liberal and Social Democratic colleagues wish to join the congratulations to you on your re-election. I assure the leader of the Labour party that this is probably the only occasion when we shall agree to fusion, democratic or otherwise, with him or with the leader of the Conservative party, but we happily do so on this occasion.

When you were elected four years ago, we observed that you were the first Speaker to come from the Whips Office, where you had a reputation for straight dealing and fairness. That reputation has been enhanced by your period in the Chair. You have brought to the Chair a sense of authority, wisdom and humour which we all appreciate. You also have a further distinction which is important to us: you recognise the rights and importance of minorities in the House.

It is as well for us to recall that, wherever we sit in the House, we all represent minorities here, although I have to observe, looking across the Floor of the House, that some minorities are larger than others. But they are all minorities still. I look forward to the first meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee, when we shall be able to look across the Floor and observe that some minorities are smaller than others.

When we speak in the House, we speak not just on behalf of the numbers of us here represented but on behalf of the other 7 million people whom we represent on these Benches. You recognise that, Mr. Speaker-Elect, and we are grateful to you. We wish you well in the Chair and we, too, thank Mrs. Weatherill for working with you to make Speaker's House a home within the House.

3.28 pm
Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), who proposed your election, which I warmly support, suggested by a slip of the tongue that all of us come here as equals. On reflection, he will discover that that is not quite accurate, because for 16 of us, whether we represent the majority or the minority in Northern Ireland, our equality is to some extent eroded because of the peculiar devices employed to govern Northern Ireland during the past 15 years. I express the hope, Sir, that that defect will be remedied while you are Speaker.

I express my warm congratulations and good wishes to you, Sir. During the election campaign, I got the distinct impression that, over on this island, party leaders were saying some unkind things about each other — in contrast to what was happening in Northern Ireland. But such is my faith in your powers of persuasion that I am sure that you will shortly effect reconciliation. Who knows — you may proceed from that to coalition and perhaps even power-sharing in due course. On behalf of the Members of the Ulster Unionist party I wish you well, Sir.

Mr. Speaker-Elect (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

I call Mr. Dafydd Wigley.

3.29 pm
Mr. D. E. Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

That is an understandable confusion, Sir. On behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I congratulate you on your re-election as Mr. Speaker-Elect, and thank you for the way in which you have carried out your duty of recognising the role of minority parties, be they national parties or other minorities, in this House. I thank you also for the indulgence that you have given to Back Benchers during our debates. I share with you the hope that during this Parliament we shall have an opportunity for an early debate on the televising of our proceedings, because I am well aware that one of your concerns is that the public should understand the nature of this House and see its relevance to the issues that concern them.

I pay tribute to the way in which you have attempted — within the rules of order of this House— to ensure that relevant matters are debated at the times when they are relevant. Similarly, you have produced an innovation in Question Time which many of my hon. Friends and many Conservative Members may not have fully supported at the time, but which has enabled us to move rapidly over certain questions and allowed us to have more time for discussing questions which may appear to have greater prominence on that day.

I commend you for those innovations and wish you well in further innovatory practices in the House.

3.31 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, on behalf of the Democratic Unionists in this House, I should like to congratulate you on your re-election to the Speaker's Chair. In the last House, Sir, you had an easy ride from the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists for some time. However, I can assure you that this time you will see us, I hope, and that your eye will be wide open when we stand.

In the past, Sir, you have been gracious to minorities in this House in giving them time to put their views to the House. As the Ulster people suffer under the great wrong that has been referred to by my right hon. Friend the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), I am sure that in this Parliament you will continue to look favourably upon the Unionists as they put their case.

In commenting upon the Prime Minister's reference to holy writ, I should like to say that it is dangerous not to quote the whole passage. I hope that every hon. Member will go home and look up what Paul said in Timothy to find out why the Prime Minister left out some appropriate parts of that passage of holy scripture.

3.32 pm
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, in rising to congratulate you, I do so with the specific purpose of making two requests of you. This is the 14th election of a Speaker that I have attended as a Member of the House, having been a Member under seven Speakers. The first of those, Colonel Clifton Brown, was elected Speaker in 1943. No Member of the House could fail to be impressed by the way in which tributes are paid and by the show of reluctance by Mr. Speaker-Elect and his gracious speech. Tomorrow, Sir, you go to the House of Lords, the House of Peers, to lay claim to the ancient privileges of the House. Those who know our parliamentary history understand the reason for all that.

However, Mr. Speaker-Elect, the House gives you great powers, not only the power to preside, the power to select or reject amendments, the power to make rulings, and the power to call speakers, but above all the power to influence the order of business in the House by the powers conveyed to you by the standing orders.

It would be a great mistake today if the House, in repeating the ancient ritual which it knows so well, were to assume that the challenge posed by Charles I when he came to the House has entirely disappeared. Of course, the Crown itself no longer challenges the House, but in my judgment, Ministers of the Crown do challenge the privileges of Parliament.

I cite two examples that have occurred in recent months. One is still the subject of a Committee of Privileges report that I cannot anticipate and relates to the Zircon film. The other relates to the publication of a book, when hon. Members were circumscribed in what they were able to say by rulings imposed on you and the House by the courts at the instance of Ministers. So indeed were the press and the Lobby, which are part of the same process of open government.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, to defend us vigorously in this century from attempts by the Executive to control Members and our business in the way in which Mr. Speaker Lenthall did before.

Although this has been a cosy parliamentary occasion, there can be nobody listening to this debate or observing this Parliament who does not realise that we in Britain are in very troubled times. I am not questioning the outcome of the election, but we are now a polarised society. Many hon. Members will come to the House with appalling anxieties and problems that they will discover in their constituencies — due, perhaps, to a closure, rising unemployment or a crisis that affects them — and they will be pleading with you day after day to permit private notice questions and emergency debates under Standing Order No. 10.

The main business of the House is determined by agreement through the usual channels between the two Front Benches. But in electing you we give you the power to vary the business where it is obviously necessary for the House of Commons to discuss matters that are of prime concern to people in certain areas — perhaps the inner cities — where burning issues arise. If people read that Parliament has had no time for them, they will draw their own conclusions about Parliament.

Hansard is the only publicly owned newspaper in Britain, and people are entitled to hear and read their anxieties reflected in debates in the House. Therefore, in congratulating you on your Speakership — for which personally I have every reason to be grateful— I beg you to be vigilant in defending us against the Executive and tolerant in allowing Members to bring to this Chamber anxieties that cause their constituents the deepest possible concern.

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